Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

17 February 2007

Every now and then we get asked for something that, although seemingly reasonable on its face, is actually something we'd rather not get into. This time, I'm talking about comparisons with our competitors.

We just don't do them. We don't produce them internally and we certainly don't want to write and publish them externally.

Why? Especially as it seems so innocuous a request: "Have you a document that compares your XtraFooBar product against AceFooBarCo's version?" One presumes the potential customer is sizing up our implementation against AceFooBarCo's in order that he can then place an order for a site license of 100 or more. W00t!

My issues with this simple request are manyfold.

1. If we did produce such a document, it would be biased. Well, duh. It goes without saying. It's not like we'd phone up AceFooBarCo and hammer out a comparison document we both agree on that we then both use; heck, no: we take a quick look at AceFooBarCo's version and write up a document.

The bias may be deliberate (we happen to "forget" to mention that AceFooBarCo's version does X when ours doesn't). It may be an inadvertent mistake (we genuinely don't notice that AceFooBarCo's version does X because we're not looking for it since ours doesn't do X), or it may be that we stretch the truth a little (although we acknowledge that although AceFooBarCo's version does X, we say that we do something better which means you don't need X).

So what are you, our potential customer, left with? A document you can't really trust too much.

2. If we did produce a comparison document, its summary wouldn't necessarily be applicable to what you need for your project. Not quite so obvious a duh, but still one nevertheless.

Look, only you know who you are writing an application for, what you want it to do, the data you need to work with and display and where it resides, the performance envelope you have to work within, and so on, so forth. One assumes that if you are going to write an application, you are going to have all these things pretty much nailed down. It's a far different application that has to accept 100s of simultaneous users on the Internet than one which is used by seven people in the accounts department. That difference translates into different requirements for your third-party products.

But we, the people writing the comparison document, don't know all this. So we have to make it pretty general. We certainly don't want to write comparison documents for every scenario we can think of: our business is in writing components and tools and frameworks. So the comparison document would tend to have a fairly fuzzy out-of-focus quality to it: it may apply to what you're doing, it may be completely inapplicable, it most likely falls in between.

So, again, you're left with a document you can't completely trust.

3. If we did produce a document that compared our XtraFooBar against AceFooBarCo's, it wouldn't take long before we'd be asked for a comparison against FabFooBarInc's; oh, and don't forget GroovyFooBarLtd either.

At some point, we just won't have time to do all this diligently and so we'll take short cuts. We'll select a bunch of features, A, B, C and so on where we feel we do well and then just compare those features. It's a case of introducing some subtle biases again. Of course, you could go to the competitor and check their comparison chart, but you'd probably find that they just compare features J, K, L and so on.

And you're left with a document that's just not comprehensive and is bound to have biases.

4. And then if we did have a whole bunch of comparison documents, we'd then have to maintain them though all our releases and our competitors' releases to make sure that they're up to date. We just don't have those resources available -- given the breadth of our products, it would be a full time job for someone -- and so I can imagine that it would only get done when we release our new versions.

So you get a document that's likely to be out-of-date and therefore untrustworthy.

5. And even then, if we had all these comparison documents and freely gave them out, eventually one of our competitors would take offense at something we'd stated in them. Maybe it's wrong, maybe it's not the whole truth, maybe they think we're not being fair, maybe they just object to our tone, whatever it may be we'll just get sucked into some bizarre vortex where we're arguing about minutiae with our competitors in some public forum, or worse there'd be some legal suit we'd have to contend with.

And you, our potential customer, would have some great entertainment watching all this, but it certainly wouldn't get you any further towards your goal.

It's a hackneyed cliché, but consider how you buy a car. Do you go to the Ford dealer and ask for their comparison brochure that measures up their medium truck against GM's and Chevy's? Nope. You do that yourself at home. You know what you what the truck for, and which features are important to you, and so you do the comparison yourself. You ask around, perhaps: what are other people saying about the trucks you're considering? A couple of test drives, some checking of financial possibilities, and you're all set with your choice.

So, to summarize, please don't ask us for comparisons against our competitors, we just don't have them and we're not going to produce any.

We'd rather say to you: here's what we do. If you can't see something you need, ask (we may have it, we may be doing it, or we may just say, sorry, no can do). If you want to see what other customers are saying about us, ask around or you can look here and here. If you want reviews go over here. If you want to compare prices you can get ours here. And so on.

We believe that you're the best person to do meaningful comparisons because only you know what's important to you.

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